A leap into waste management

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In the latter part of 2015, one couple in Battambang decided to change their life’s direction to make their hometown cleaner, healthier, and more beautiful. They put aside their established construction business and set about getting their hands dirty.

Mrs. Soum Samnang and Mr. Leap Lem were concerned about their community’s environment and health.  With rubbish being randomly discarded, there were severe risks to water and soil, not to mention the danger of insect and rodent infestations. Waste fires polluted the air and smelled terrible.  

Their rising concern intersected with a governmental Sub-Decree passed earlier in the year to increase waste collection and disposal through decentralization and education.  It outlawed waste dumping and burning and established a required fee for households to pay to have their waste collected. 

Battambang province established a blueprint for the implementation of the Sub-Decree and issued a tender request for waste management operators. 

“So, we decided to put in a bid, “ said Mrs. Soum. “And we won.”

They named their company Leap Lem Waste Management. 

They used savings to buy the necessary trucks and other equipment and began hiring workers to collect the trash within their designated areas.  Before long, they expanded to two more districts, tracking their household collection locations through Google Maps.

As they expanded, they added more workers. They currently have  52 employees, 26 of whom are women. 

“Many times.” said Mr. Lem, “a husband and wife will apply to work with us together.  Before,  maybe, they had to migrate to Thailand to work, but now they can stay home and work here with these jobs.”

Still, there are challenges in recruiting and retaining staff.  Collecting large amounts of rubbish into trucks and emptying it into landfills is hard and dirty work, day after day.   There are work contracts, but they are next to impossible to enforce within a largely illiterate employee base. 

So, there is regular improvisation. Sometimes routes have to be expanded or contracted based on who does or does not show up for work on a given day.  This can sometimes be anticipated and planned for during, for example, Khmer holidays or local harvest times.  In other, unanticipated  worker shortages, everyone who is on-site pitches in to collect the garbage from the company’s customers, now numbering around one thousand households – and growing. 

In cities and countries where waste management has long been built into governmental taxes and infrastructures, it would be unusual to think of garbage collection as a matter of trust between individuals. But this is new to Battambang, and it is hard to convince people, even if it’s the law,  to pay for someone to collect their trash when they have dumped or burned it themselves for generations.  

So to meet their obligations within the priorities established by the municipal government, Leap Lem Waste Management must develop personal relationships and community goodwill.  They are educators and diplomats as well as trash collectors.  

They’d also like to become recyclers of plastic and producers of fertilizer and compost from household bio-waste.  This is a long-term aspiration reliant upon expanded income through growth and the waste by-products’ market viability. 

It is also an aspiration, no matter if long-term, that has a good chance of becoming reality.  After all, there will always be waste to manage.